From Carol Deppe, we incorporated some of her stock in 2010.
The Ideal Free-range Layers for the Maritime Northwest
By Carol Deppe
The most ecologically
well-adapted livestock for the maritime Northwest is the duck. I believe we should have a free-range egg
industry based upon ducks, not chickens.
Chickens make better confinement animals. Bur for free-ranging in the maritime
Northwest, ducks have all the advantages.
Ducks can free-range year round in our region, forage much more of their
diets than chickens, eat a larger variety of natural foods common here
(including slugs and snails), are better for garden pest control, and they love
our weather. The best breeds of laying
ducks lay better than the best breeds of laying chickens. Ducks lay better in winter. Properly cooked duck eggs are delicious and
intensely flavorful. (Duck eggs require
less cooking than chicken eggs. Many
people overcook them and then blame the duck egg instead of the cooking. Duck eggs taste just like chicken eggs except
that the flavor is more intense and they are a little richer.)
Chickens have a 26-hr egg cycle, and lay about 2 hours later
each day. Ducks have a 24-hr cycle. Ducks lay their eggs about 4 am – 8 am each morning. We manage the laying duck flock by penning
them at night and releasing or herding them to their forage area in the
morning. This allows us to have all the
eggs laid in the nests in the night pen.
Ducks are the easiest of all animals to herd. In Southeast Asia,
there is a major free-range duck egg industry based upon ducks penned at night
and herded to and from forage in the morning and evening. Once ducks know a routine, they pretty much
will just run to where they are supposed to be, and your only job is to open
and close doors and gates.
Ducks need much more water and make much more and wetter
poop than chickens. They use just a
monolayer of their house or night pen.
That is, they don’t use roosts, and their nests are on the ground floor. They also really need bathing water to be
comfortable (whatever the books say), and will quit laying if confined as
closely as chickens. For chicken
tractors, I recommend chickens. (You
need about 4x as much space for the same number of ducks, not counting extra
space for bathing water. By the time the
quarters are adequate for ducks, they aren’t very portable.) I recommend ducks for a more extensive
management system in which the layers are confined only at night and have an
extensive forage area (with some bathing water, at lease a kiddy pool) during
Ducks can give you year-0round free-range eggs. Here in the maritime Northwest, winter
usually provides the best foraging except when temperatures drop below freezing
(and keep all the slugs and worms hidden).
July and August usually provide the poorest forage unless you have a
pond or irrigated area. Only a small
part of my night pen is protected from weather with a roof and three
sides. The ducks have never bothered to
use the protected area during rain or snow.
(They just shake the snow off every once in a while.) (The protected
area is for nests.)
Ducks are more vulnerable to 4-footed predators than
chickens. If your perimeter fencing is
inadequate, you may be able to get away with it longer if you have chickens,
especially chickens who are competent fliers.
None of the laying breeds of ducks fly very much or very
high. I fence Anconas away from gardens
with a 2’ fence. (2’ hardware cloth,
which is easy to step over.) A 2’ fence
will not stop a terrified duck or keep a duck separate from buddies on the
other side, however. To keep 4-footed
predators away from the ducks, you’ll need perimeter fencing good enough to
exclude stray dogs and coyotes. Electric
poultry net of fencing at lease 4 1\4’ high is standard. The night pen or house needs to exclude night
predators that climb such as raccoons, possums, and skunks and those that
swoop, such as owls.) Poultry wire isn’t
useful in constructing night pens.
Coyotes, foxes, and raccoons can all tear through it.
Ancona ducks are a dual purpose breed of duck
that are various colors with a pinto-style whie spotting pattern that makes it
easy to tell each individual. Anconas
come in black and white, blue and white, chocolate and white, lavender and
white, silver and white, and multicolored.
Anconas are the best foragers as well as the best layers of all
medium-weight duck breeds. Anconas forage as well or better than Khaki
Campbells or Welsh Harlequins, which are smaller, skinnier, more nervous
breeds. Under a controlled light regime,
Anconas lay about 210-280 eggs\year.
They lay less with natural lighting, but still lay pretty well. Ancona eggs
are huge – mostly jumbo and superjumbo.
Some birds lay green eggs. (Many
of my strain lay green eggs.) Anconas
are especially good winter layers. Anconas are a rare breed, a breed
designates as “critically endangered” by the American Livestock Breeds
Conservancy (www.albcusa.org.) Keeping
Anconas provides generous numbers of jumbo and super jumbo eggs as well as
helps to preserve a rare and valuable breed.
Compared with Khaki Campbells, Welsh Harlequins, or Indian Runners, the
better-known laying-duck breeds, Anconas lay much bigger eggs and are
considerably calmer and easier to work with. Campbells or Harlequins
lay more eggs that Anconas, but the eggs are of ordinary chicken- egg sizes,
considerably smaller than Ancona
eggs. Anconas lay much better than most
lines of Runners, and have the big egg size as well. All these laying ducks tend to lay well
enough and forage well enough to be economical to keep for years, unlike
chickens, which are ordinarily economical to keep for only a year or two.
Campbells, Harlequins, or Runners weight about 4 to 5 1\5
lbs. Some people dress out the excess
drakes of such breeds, but as with light-breed chickens (such as White Leghorns
or Production Reds), most people find the butchering to be too much work for
the few bites of meat that result.
Anconas generally weigh about 6-7lbs, and the excess Ancona drakes have enough meat on them to be
well worth the time it takes to dress them out; they make preime roasting
Anconas have powerful legs and feet that are oversized for
the size of the bird, and they rarely have any foot or leg problems. I think this gives them special advantages on
slowed, rough, or bramble-infested land.
Anconas forage better as well as lay considerably better
than all the other dual-purpose breeds (such as Buff Orpingtons, Swedish,
Cayuga, and Crested).
Anconas don’t have as much meat on them as the heavy meat
breeds, however, only the Appleyard, Aylesbury, Muscovy,
Pekin, Rouen, and Saxony). So if you
want meat only and not eggs, one of the heave meat breeds is a better
choice. Of the meat breeds, however,
only the Appleyard and Saxony lay well, and
these are such big birds their feed conversion for egg production is low and
production of eggs is thus not as economical as for the light or medium weight
Anconas are capable of going broody and raising the next
generation. (Campbells, Harlequins, and
Runners don’t generally go broody, and if they do, don’t do it well enough or
persist long enough to hatch out the babies.)
About ten eggs seems to be the right number for and Ancona duck to hatch out.
Anconas have more
sophisticated flock behavior than most breeds. They usually have female leaders, who may or
may not be the dominant ducks(s).
(Anconas know that fighting ability and wisdom are two different
things.) Having female leaders means
that an Ancona
flock spends more of its time in the best foraging areas. (Females care much more about foraging than
males because of the demons of egg production.)
Campbell and Harlequin ducks usually follow the drakes. What drakes care most about is mating. A male-led flock spends most of it’s time on
and near the bathing pool, the favorite mating spot, which rapidly becomes
denuded and isn’t good forage. By the
time the drakes are all through mating, the worms and slugs have been eaten by
someone else or have retreated and aren’t available. So while Campbell and Harlequin individual
ducks forage as well as Ancona
individuals, as flocks, Anconas forage much
Anconas have much more sophisticated ability to communicate
through body language than other breeds, and can say even such complicated
thins such as “Let’s you and her fight.”
Or “Be our leader.” “No. I’ve retired.
You look like the right duck for the job.” Or “Leave her alone. She
belongs. Be cool. You belong too.” Ancona
ducks have very distinctive vocalizations that allow you to always know what
the flock is up to. My Anconas are much better watch-dogs than the geese I used
to have. Anconas have distinctive calls
meaning “Major Predator! (Run! Dodge! Even fly! (Help, Person!),” “Minor predator.” (Let’s watch and harass it and rattle at it
so it goes away and hunts somewhere else), “Follow me.” (Leader calls.) “Where is everyone?” and “We’re here.” And my flock also has a distinctive trill I
like and repeat back to them that they seem to have decided to use just for
me. It seems to mean “Carol, Where are
you? Sound off so we know you’re
around.” There are various foraging
calls and softer chirps of various kinds for more private moments.
Anconas are relatively mellow and flexible when it comes to
their dominance behavior and they usually just don’t care about dominance very
much. Even the least dominant Ancona is usually happy
and full of self-esteem, is a respected member of the flock, and lays
well. (The lease dominant Harlequin is
often picked upon and depressed and doesn’t bath or lay much of anything. Campbells
are somewhere in between.)
Anconas tend to be gently and tolerant toward smaller or
younger ducks. I have introduced a baby
flock to the adult flock at about 6 weeks.
The babies usually make tentative dominance threats to the adults by
marching toward them (tentatively) and thrusting out their necks and
bills. The adults usually take a causal
step backward. (“OK. You’ve “won” And
congrats on your first effort to communicate with us.”) It usually takes the baby flock a couple
weeks to figure out that they actually aren’t dominant to the bigger ducks and
should be at least a little respectful.
My Anconas came from Holderread’s originally. For the last few years, I’ve been selecting
specifically for free-range laying characteristics. I select for good layers, especially for good
winter layers, big egg size, early laying (so birds can be released early in
the morning when the foraging is best), and “nestiness,” that is, tendency to
lay in nests instead of all over. (Eggs
outside nests are more likely to get stained or cracked.) I’ve also selected so as to increase the
proportion of layers of green eggs.
Green eggs are fun, and have at least some of them in each dozen makes
the eggs more distinctive when it comes to sales. I’ve also been selecting for longevity of
lay. All the drakes in my flock are
descendents of birds who laid well, laid in winter, laid big eggs early in the
morning, and laid those eggs in the nests, and who did that for years.